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Posts for Tag: DYI

1949 Desk Phone Converted to Novelty Lamp

Do you believe in magic?

I still remember the first time I saw a magic trick. Actually, I guess it would be more accurate to call it sleight of hand since, as we all know, magic doesn’t exist (he said with his fingers crossed behind his back).

It was in the McCrory’s 5&10 in Orange, NJ. I had to be about 5 years old and, if my memory is reliable, I think I was there to get a Halloween costume. I have no idea if I got a costume or not, because I don’t remember, but I do remember reading all of the boxes that the costumes came in and the name of the company that made them. The company was called Ben Cooper, which I thought was an odd name for a company, and I also remember being uneasy about the way “Cooper” was written on the boxes but I don’t remember why. Being Halloween related, anything was possible, but it had something to do with the shapes of the letters. They were “scary”!

Anyway, there was a guy in the store with small foam rabbits, each about the size of half an adult thumb. He would walk around the store and demonstrate them to the various groups of parents and kids who were also, undoubtedly, shopping for Halloween costumes. He eventually made his way around to my mom and me and had the 3 foam rabbits in his hand. He told me some kind of story about the rabbits which had them traveling back and forth between his palms until the part of the story where one rabbit gets separated from the others and winds up alone in the chosen hand. He then asked me which hand that lone rabbit was in. I was extremely certain that I knew, because I had just seen him put it in that hand. I confidently pointed to the hand with the single rabbit, he opened his hand and there were no rabbits. He then opened his other hand and all 3 were there! I remember yelling something like, “Shut The Front Door!!” only I didn’t know about that yet, so I must have said the five-year-old equivalent. If I had to guess it was probably, “Holy Cow!!” Needless to say, I had to have these magic rabbits made out of foam and, when I left the store that day, I was the proud owner of 3 foam magic rabbits.

I don’t think there was even any packaging involved with these rabbits, certainly no instructions. I think this guy was just peddling naked foam rabbits, for who knows how much money, to kids like me who wanted to have their own magic rabbits. I’m pretty sure he showed me how to do the trick and, when I found out that it was not magic at all, and that I would have to practice this movement with my hands while misdirecting my audience (aka, my mom who was also seeing how this “magic” was done), I thought, well this is bull sh**, only I didn’t know about that yet so I probably thought the 5-year-old equivalent. Not sure what that would have been.

It was a valuable lesson on several levels, but it also introduced me to the sensation of not believing what my eyes were telling me was true. I have always loved that feeling and I’ve had an interest in the art of illusion ever since. I especially like the kinds of illusions that you can look directly at and not immediately figure out how you are seeing what you are seeing. A good example of this is the magic water spigot, seemingly hanging in the air with no visible means of support, yet it has a continuous stream of water coming out of it and falling into a container below. The best version of this I ever saw was in a mall. For the life of me I can’t remember if it was one of the malls where I grew up, or a mall in Florida, but that version of the magic water spigot was in an open part of the common area of the mall and the spigot was huge and probably ten or fifteen feet up in the air. (If anyone reading this remembers the giant mall spigot, let me know because it has been driving me crazy trying to remember which mall it was.) Though I knew how the floating spigot worked by then, I still loved to stare at that thing. 

Similarly, when I first came to Louisville, I was in the Spencer’s Gifts in the Jefferson Mall. They had a tiny wind chime hanging near the cash register and it was gently chiming, seemingly by magic, because there was no wind in the store. I looked at it for a few seconds then noticed that the piece from which it was hanging was moving slightly, back and forth, but, over time, it was enough movement to make the swinging striker touch the chimes now and then. It was a cool effect but they wanted a ton of money for those wind chimes. It bugged me enough that I eventually built my own, but my magic wind chimes, which I named “Invisi-Breeze” at the time, have been running for an hour each morning for the last 30ish years. My indoor wind chimes have no moving parts. The striker is driven by a hidden electromagnet that gets energized with pulses of electricity. I should make a video of it someday because back in 1991, when I built it, we were still in the camcorder days and cell phones with no cameras. It is one of those items though that I still look at with amazement because it seems to be doing the impossible, even though I know exactly how it works because I built the stupid thing.

Speaking of videos, that’s the entire purpose of this long trip down memory lane. I finally finished my phone project with the 1949 desk phone. Some of you may have seen the photo of its dial that I posted a couple of days ago. That phone has been around longer than 99% of the people who are likely to be reading this. It couldn’t serve its purpose as a phone anymore, but I hope it will serve in its new capacity, acting as a conversation piece and giving me more of that Ben Cooper uneasiness, for many years to come. You see, it’s a lamp now, but one that looks like it ignores the laws of physics. It’s got a sort of a Harry Potteresque feel to it. I had seen something similar on a website a few years ago, but the illusion was not convincing because the cord between the handset and the phone was too fat and the bulbs stuck out. I’ve had this phone for a year now and it has taken that long to figure out what kind of parts would make it work safely and how I could get those parts to actually go together. Think of it like Wordle, but with physical objects, and you don’t know what the scope of the “alphabet” is when you start.

The video is only about a minute long but, since you are not seeing the phone in-person, I wanted to try and induce a bit of a feeling of vertigo, or being slightly off kilter, because that’s the way it feels to me when I look across the house and see it lit up and floating above the book case. I think Ben Cooper would be proud…